By Will Ross
If this was 2014 and I was allowed to offer one piece of advice to the makers of John Wick for their development of a sequel, it would be to adopt a greater commitment to tone. While that film played with some goofier material and sprinkled in some personal pathos and indulged in some heightened crime drama, its expression of each tended to feel like half-measures, rubber banded to an indistinct center whose emotional heft was murkier than the film’s needlessly low-contrast photography. The crime material offered up hammy line readings but ought to have pushed the juvenilia of its world-building up to the hilt, the mourning and reflection was given time to but rarely aimed for the melodramatic operatics that could make it proportionate to the action-crime-drama material and give it emotional credibility, and Wick’s unfathomable power to survive shootouts with any number of hired guns was given some wry nods, but a force so brutally unstoppable should be less like the Wachowskis’ Neo and more like Chuck Jones’s Road Runner.
For Chad Stahelski (this time directing solo), the new comic point of reference isn’t quite a Looney Tunes cartoon, but arguably the closest thing to it in live action cinema, Buster Keaton, a declaration I’m not making based on careful scrutiny of the film’s stylistic properties but based on the fact that one of the film’s opening shots focuses on a scene from Sherlock Jr. projected on the side of a Manhattan building. While it’s not a comparison that the film always strives for, the influence is felt and appreciated, and the in-your-face delivery of that influence to the audience also reflects a very welcome post-modern playfulness with its own identity. That identity, for what it’s worth, never successfully resolves, but Chapter 2 imperfectly points a potential path for an action movie whose split personality is half the fun.
The opening sequence — where Wick storms a garage serving as a front for the Russian mob — is better than anything in the original. First and foremost, you have Peter Stormare playing the brother of John Wick’s chief antagonist, and his bit part (confined to appearances in a single room in the first 15 minutes) is the best performance in either film. If Michael Nyqvist’s Russian crime boss was slyly parodic, Stormare’s is an abject mockery of the stereotype. Or maybe it’s just an abject mockery of “acting” as a “character” in a “movie”. Either way it’s absolutely hilarious, not just exploiting the humour of the lines as written but pouring excess all over them and singlehandedly breaking the illusion of a contiguous fiction. It’s more syrup than pancake, and I love it.
The opening also announces Chapter 2’s shift in focus in that it is completely irrelevant to the film’s plot. While there is a plot that threads the movie together and it is an entertaining plot, it’s also a lot of nonsense, and by opening with 15 minutes of wholly disconnected action rather than the studious character development of John Wick, Stahelski and returning scribe Derek Kolstad signal heavily that literary levels of dramatic structure are not the point of the plot. The point of the plot is to deliver inventive and well-staged action set pieces and moments that try to make you laugh as hard as Peter Stormare.
The plot, for what it’s worth, involves John continuing his fruitless quest to re-retire from the underworld. Instead he causes an extreme crescendo of pissing powerful criminals off, and gradually seems to accept that this is his life now, just headshotting people who try to kill you until you can get to antagonist du jour and killing him and enjoying a moment of respite before all the people who liked or worked with that antagonist tell everyone they know to kill you. It’s a formula that’s carried over from the first film and would feel stale if it weren’t for the fact that it rises to such crazy heights here; the fact that Wick gets himself into much deeper shit than turning the entire Camorra crime syndicate against him should give you a hint at how giddy this series is about turning almost literally the entire world against him.
That tidal wave of would-be killers translates to an enlarged body count, which means killing a whole lot more people on average in the handful of section pieces that give the movie reason to be. While John Wick’s action sequences derived their success almost entirely from Keanu Reeves’s ability to fluidly launch his body from one position to the next in reaction to his assailants — a quality retained and even enhanced here — Chapter 2 adds numerous elements to give each fight and shootout its own arc. That often entails greater interaction with the environment, as in a hall-of-mirrors sequence that confounds our sense of spatial orientation, or more diverse tactical decision-making, displayed up-front when Wick outfoxes his motorcycle-driving quarry in a car chase by swinging through a route with faster traffic before stopping his car dead in the middle of an intersection, right where the chopper can’t help but slam into the side and send its rider sailing into the concrete.
But the most important and effective way this Wick crafts more satisfying fight scenes is by incorporating a whole lot more table setting. John’s loadout before each fight is introduced in (sometimes laboured) detail, and those setups are paid off amply every time: in one fight his frustration at being given a single pistol with a seven-bullet magazine pays off multiple times as he angrily runs short of bullets, switches guns, throws the cast-offs at his opponents; in another, he removes a piece of kevlar shielding that was sewed into his jacket when he thinks a gunfight is over, only to desperately hold the floppy bullet-proof oval in front of him as he’s ambushed. It’s these logical (and usually comical) extrapolations from Wick’s toolkits, more than anything, that reveals the Keaton influence.
I also have to single out the film for its improvements in music and cinematography, two of the biggest problems with its prequel. While the music by Tyler Bates and new composer Joel J. Richard is only a marginal improvement from the last (thanks mostly to adopting a slightly expanded sonic palette), the cinematography, this time headed by Dan Laustsen, hasn’t just escaped liability; it’s now one of the film’s biggest assets. Laustsen retains the film’s love of colour splashes, ditches the blue and orange filters and low contrast of the last film (there are numerous scenes with neutral skin tones here), and displays a far greater utility with composition than Jonathan Sela’s work last time around. It’s not just a big step up from the cinematography in the last Wick movie I saw, but the last Dan Laustsen movie I saw: the fact that it was the sloppy visuals in The Shape of Water that gathered Laustsen all the accolades in 2017 while his work here received no attention is a prime example of how farcical the Hollywood awards season is. It also helps that the production design — with Kevin Kavanaugh heading that department this time — is lovely and well-tuned to the movie’s aesthetic and sense of humour, full of baroque parodies of the settings — museum, modern art installation, Italian hotel — that both help the film’s comical tone and give a more robust colour arrangement. It’s Kavanaugh’s best work to date, and a great example of a project that gives a production designer room to do something truly unique.
In fact, I could almost say that the improvement on offer here is nearly across-the-board. That doesn’t mean Chapter 2 is flawless, mind you. A little bit of the first film’s half-baked attempts at psychoanalyzing Wick rears its head from time to time (most irritatingly in an excruciating “I think you enjoy this” speech given by the bad guy as he hides around the corner”). There still isn’t much of a sense of palpably rising stakes and heightening tension over the full runtime. And a lot of the dialogue still feels very written, the attempt to be cool coming through much clearer than any actual sense of being cool. The music, while a bit better, is still wallpaper-y at its best and irrirating at its worth (as in a baffling remix of one of the Summer movements from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that strips out almost all the rhythmic urgency). And finally, I’d be remiss if I said that as of this chapter this series is developing something of a problem with associating its few female characters with sexualized violence, particularly a scene where a character strips nude before slitting her wrists and lying face-up in a pool of water. I’m happy that Kolstad is pushing for more operatic levels of melodrama here, but scenes like that show a thoughtlessness about the approach that I dearly hope changes in Chapter 3, and make the overwhelmingly male crew a lot tougher to swallow.
That, ultimately, is the most telling compliment I can pay to John Wick: Chapter 2: it shows artists committed to improvement and confident enough to deliver an undeniably entertaining pop cinema experience. While I came into John Wick and Chapter 2 with a sense of obligation to stay in the loop about modern action movies, I’m actively excited to go see the new Parabellum chapter later this afternoon and find out what new ideas and improvements these artists have to offer. He may not be the Road Runner, but Wick is definitely starting to really step on the gas here.
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